Digital Exclusive: Job apathy stretching businesses to their limits

Digital Exclusive

When this reporter set out to do a story about a new business downtown called Kellar’s: A Modern Magic and Comedy Club, I had hoped for a fun, exciting experience at this new magic and comedy club.

“Is there a time Wednesday where some staff will be preparing for the weekend show so I can grab some footage?” I asked.

“No. Nobody’s here at all during the week,” said Kellar’s co-owner Kristi Lewonas. “We don’t have enough staff to open any days but Friday and Saturday with one Sunday a month.”

A bigger story developed.

Since businesses reopened in Pennsylvania during the COVID-19 pandemic, many patrons have rallied to shop or dine out, keeping the economy moving. But those businesses, both corporate and small, have struggled to maintain enough help to keep up with guests of their establishment.

“The ones of us that are surviving are the owners that are actually putting on the apron,” Lewanos said. “I wash the bottles. I clean the bathroom. I bartend on Friday and Saturday.”

Lewonas said she has had discussions with multiple small business owners in Erie and sent me to owner Kevin Camp of Colony Pub and Grille. Camp owns two other restaurants in Erie County, and none of his places are fully staffed.

“I don’t think it’s the money factor,” Camp said. “I mean, these servers are probably making more money now than they ever have just because there are more of them, and people feel sorry for these girls and guys that have been so stressed out about whether they’re going to have income.”

All of the owners who interviewed for this story believe the Federal Cares Act extension to September adding an additional $300 to people’s stipends every week is making potential employees not want to work. However, sources who have posted various memes about the topic online say there are deeper issues at work here. For instance:

  • The minimum wage at both the federal and state level are not sufficient for the current cost of living. Multiple studies, including this one from MIT, have proven the current numbers are poverty-level wages.
  • According to Dr. Ken Louie, director of the Economic Research Institute of Erie (E.R.I.E.), higher wages lead to higher disposable income, which can increase an employees spending in his or her local economy. That means businesses can experience higher revenues to afford these higher wages. Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf supports a higher wage for this reason.
  • If legislation passes where corporations are taxed higher, those taxes can be used as subsidies for small businesses to stay in the game.
  • It has been almost 12 years since the federal minimum wage was raised. Instead, if it had been rising consistently to meet inflation for the cost of living, then the wages people are asking for would not be so much higher than what businesses are currently offering.
  • Finally, if paying a living wage is such a threat, then, after yearly expenses are accounted for, are the current profits going toward raises for the staff or to the owner?

On Wednesday, received an email from Amy Nordstrom, who owns and operates Little Wonders Child Care. She said she has raised prices for her families from $183 per week to $200 per week to increase her offer for much-needed help. She is at capacity for number of families, not for lack of space, but because she is mandated by the state to maintain a certain ratio of children to workers.

“Honestly, it’s going to put me under,” Nordstrom said. “I can’t give into something like [continually raising my wages]. It’s not feasible… In three months, I have probably received about 15-20 [applications]. I have called probably 10, had interviews with three. I hired three, one showed up. And that person quit within a month. It’s frustrating!”

At the rate that he’s receiving applications, Waldameer and Water World president Steve Gorman says the local amusement park will probably have to rotate their attractions due to being short-staffed by over 100 people. Last year, during the pandemic, he had 400 employees through the summer. As they prepare to open on May 15th, the staff is only at about 225.

“We’re very surprised that there’s a lack of applicants to work here this summer,” Gorman said. “And it’s hard to put your finger on what’s happening in our economy, why people are not coming to apply… I think most people that work here have a really enjoyable summer, working for us.”

For now, the best thing small businesses can do is increase their wages. Kellar’s has increased their wages for their current staff, and Little Wonders added $2 more per hour for current openings to try to add more workers. These postings are currently available on various job websites.

Owners are hoping once the Federal Cares Act expires on September 4th, they will receive more applications. Until then, they are taking the floor themselves to make sure they can take care of their customers.

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